Europe | Hungary | Budapest – Pest
Pest seems to be much more the heart of the city. It’s more your typical central European city, with leafy boulevards, plenty of banks, impressive buildings in many styles, enticing pavement cafes and a shocking number of shoe shops.
My favourite part is Hosok Tere [Hero’s Square]. Most European cities don’t have enough open space. Their planners should have a looksee here. Laid out in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyars kicking Turkish butt and claiming this part of the Danube basin for themselves, it’s a magnificent tiled square that exudes grandeur, apart from the omnipresent skaters. It’s surrounded by more manly neo-Classical pillars than you can shake a stick at, and is home to 7 legendary 1000 year old Magyar chieftains, statues of War and Peace on horseback, heroes of the long Hungarian struggle for freedom, the tomb of the unknown soldier, and the Archangel Gabriel atop a 36m pillar. It’s superb.
It’s also the gateway to Szechenyi Baths. This is one of Europe’s largest public baths and gets 2 million visitors a year. Wednesday it got me. There’s a mix of hot and cold baths. The hot is 38C and the cold very nearly freezing. You can have spurting currents or calming pools. Or both. A heavenly way to kick back and relax for a few hours. Some old men played water chess on floating boards. All for a very reasonable 800fl [about 3 Euros]. You really should go.
Hosok Tere is a the top of leafy Andrassy Ut. Andrassy Ut has been through a lot. It’s been called Sugar, Andrassy, Stalin, Hungarian Youth, People’s Republic and now it’s Andrassy again. It’s home to many neo-Renaissance embassies, the beautifully ornate Art Nouveau Hungarian Press Building, and at No. 60 the ex-home of the rightly feared secret police. It’s also got the stately Opera House, the relaxing Eckermann Cafe [from where I’m writing this] and the biggest Burger King in the world.
You may want to visit the bustling indoor market at the bottom of swanky Vaci Utca. It looks like a train station, but it’s not. It’s choc full of traditional Hungarian salami and cheeses, Magyar peasant garb and dinky magic boxes. A word of warning though. Beware the gnarled, hardy looking Roma woman who guards the toilets. That was a close shave.
Then there’s St. Stephen’s wizened looking right hand. It has a right to be wizened looking, it’s 1000 years old. St. Stephen [Szent Istvan] is the patron saint of Hungary and his hand is the most prized relic in the Basilica on St. Istvan Ter. Some killjoy historians have questioned the validity of the hand, but don’t listen to them.
I was quite taken by the ornate scenes from everyday 19th century Hungarian life decorating the National Bank on Szabadsag Ter. And the massive Parliament building nearby, which have been called ‘no more than a Turkish bath crossed with a Gothic chapel’ by Hungarian poet Gyula Illyes, are certainly imposing. There are 691 rooms and 20km of stairs. You have to cross the river to Buda to get a good look at them.
For me the best thing about Budapest is the buildings. Those mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s worth taking a day just to wander around. The most incredible buildings are on every corner. Sometimes they are a museum or opera house, but mostly they’re a supermarket or shoe shop. Lots of them are crumbling from lax upkeep, missing bits of plaster and exposing the underlying brick.
But the Hungarians seem to be going somewhere. Great swathes of Pest resemble a huge building site. Capitalism is in full swing. Despite the ignorance of the Irish voters, Hungary should join the EU in the next decade. This should be good for Hungarians, but if you want to see beautiful old Budapest on the cheap, you better hurry up.